Betrayal is too kind a word to describe a situation in which a father says he loves his daughter but claims he must teach her about the horrors of the world in order to make her a stronger person; a situation in which he watches or participates in rituals that make her feel like she is going to die. She experiences pain that is so intense that she cannot think; her head spins so fast she can’t remember who she is or how she got there.
All she knows is pain. All she feels is desperation. She tries to cry out for help, but soon learns that no one will listen. No matter how loud she cries, she can’t stop or change what is happening. No matter what she does, the pain will not stop. Her father orders her to be tortured or tortures her himself and tells her it is for her own good. He tells her that she needs the discipline, or that she has asked for it by her misbehavior. Betrayal is too simple a word to describe the overwhelming pain, the overwhelming loneliness and isolation this child experiences.
As if the abuse during the rituals were not enough, this child experiences similar abuse at home on a daily basis. When she tries to talk about her pain, she is told that she must be crazy. “Nothing bad has happened to you,” her family tells her. Each day she begins to feel more and more like she doesn’t know what is real. She stops trusting her own feelings because no one else acknowledges them or hears her agony. Soon the pain becomes too great. She learns not to feel at all. This strong, lonely, desperate child learns to give up the senses that make all people feel alive. She begins to feel dead.
She wishes she were dead. For her there is no way out. She soon learns there is no hope.
As she gets older she gets stronger. She learns to do what she is told with the utmost compliance. She forgets everything she has ever wanted. The pain still lurks, but it’s easier to pretend it’s not there than to acknowledge the horrors she has buried in the deepest parts of her mind. Her relationships are overwhelmed by the power of her emotions. She reaches out for help, but never seems to find what she is looking for. The pain gets worse. The loneliness sets in. When the feelings return, she is overcome with panic, pain, and desperation.
She is convinced she is going to die. Yet, when she looks around her, she sees nothing that should make her feel so bad. Deep inside she knows something is very, very wrong, but she doesn’t remember anything. She thinks, “Maybe I am crazy.”
Such is the story of several women and other people out there. There are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don’t yearn to reach out, but because they’ve tried and found no one who cares. I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Abuse manipulates and twists a child’s natural sense of trust and love. Her innocent feelings are belittled or mocked and she learns to ignore her feelings. She can’t afford to feel the full range of feelings in her body while she’s being abused; pain, outrage, hate, vengeance, confusion, arousal. So, she short-circuits them and goes numb. For many children, any expression of feelings, even a single tear, is cause for more severe abuse. Again, the only recourse is to shut down. Feelings go underground.
Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul. There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of these nightmares. And sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear. You know all that sympathy that you feel for an abused child who suffers without a good mom or dad to love and care for them? Well, they don’t stay children forever. No one magically becomes an adult the day they turn eighteen. Some people grow up sooner, many grow up later. Some never really do. But just remember that some people in this world are older versions of those same kids we cry for.
Usually adult males who are unable to make emotional connections with the women they choose to be intimate with are frozen in time, unable to allow themselves to love for fear that the loved one will abandon them. If the first woman they passionately loved, the mother, was not true to her bond of love, then how can they trust that their partner will be true to love. Often in their adult relationships these men act out again and again to test their partner’s love.
While the rejected adolescent boy imagines that he can no longer receive his mother’s love because he is not worthy, as a grown man he may act out in ways that are unworthy and yet demand of the woman in his life that she offer him unconditional love. This testing does not heal the wound of the past, it merely reenacts it, for ultimately the woman will become weary of being tested and end the relationship, thus reenacting the abandonment. This drama confirms for many men that they cannot put their trust in love. They decide that it is better to put their faith in being powerful, in being dominant.
While they could not ‘smash their mommy’ and still receive love, they find that they can engage in intimate violence with partners who respond to their acting out by trying harder to connect with them emotionally, hoping that the love offered in the present will heal the wounds of the past. If only one party in the relationship is working to create love, to create the space of emotional connection, the dominator model remains in place and the relationship just becomes a site for continuous power struggle.
There’s a phrase, “the elephant in the room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic or in this case an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such brutality go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.” There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.
Your abusive partner doesn’t have a problem with his anger; he has a problem with your anger. One of the basic human rights he takes away from you is the right to be angry with him. No matter how badly he treats you, he believes that your voice shouldn’t rise and your blood shouldn’t boil. The privilege of rage is reserved for him alone. When your anger does jump out of you-as will happen to any abused woman from time to time-the partner is likely to try to jam it back down your throat as quickly as he can. Then they use your anger against you to prove what an irrational person you are. Abuse can make you feel straitjacketed. You may develop physical or emotional reactions to swallowing your anger, such as depression, nightmares, emotional numbing, or eating and sleeping problems, which your partner may use as an excuse to belittle you further or make you feel crazy.
But even when you stop crying, even when you fall asleep and you are nestled in his arms, this will leave another scar. No one will see it. No one will know. But it will be there. And eventually all of the scars will have scars, and that’s all you will be-one big scar of a love gone wrong. You don’t have to wait for someone to treat you bad repeatedly. All it takes is once, and if they get away with it that once, if they know they can treat you like that, then it sets the pattern for the future.
The scars from mental cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds from punches or slaps but are often not as obvious. In fact, even among women who have experienced violence from a partner, half or more report that the man’s emotional abuse is what is causing them the greatest harm. All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly, we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.
So often survivors have had their experiences denied, trivialized, or distorted. Writing is an important avenue for healing because it gives you the opportunity to define your own reality. You can say: This did happen to me. It was that bad. It was the fault & responsibility of the adult. I was and am innocent. Share your story and perhaps someone else will rise too from the realization that they are not alone.
Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We told you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.
To those who abuse: the sin is yours, the crime is yours, and the shame is yours. To those who protect the perpetrators: blaming the victims only masks the evil within, making you as guilty as those who abuse. Stand up for the innocent or go down with the rest.
One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.